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2 July 2016

Westminster has yet to come to terms with the consequences of Brexit

A political class that failed to predict a Leave vote has yet to come to terms with the consequences.

By Stephen Bush

For pro-Europeans, the referendum defeat happened overnight but it took years. The six-month-long series of warnings about the cost of leaving the European Union was overpowered by a wave of Farageist sentiment, built up over two decades in which anti-European arguments were the background hum of political discourse at Westminster and in the country.

Britain Stronger in Europe, the failed campaign to secure a Remain vote, only cranked into uncertain life on 12 October 2015, when an unexpected coalition of old Labour hands, television presenters from the mid-2000s and a former head of Marks & Spencer were recruited. Meanwhile, the Leave campaign was, in effect, born on the morning of 23 July 1993, when the Maastricht Treaty finally passed through the House of Commons, following close to a year of Conservative infighting.

A gaggle of rebels – including Iain Duncan Smith and John Whittingdale, two of the six cabinet ministers who refused to back David Cameron’s renegotiated deal with the European Union – were defeated that day, but they achieved a sea change within the Conservative Party. Just as, a decade earlier, Tony Blair had been advised that he must “wear the right badges” and support the shibboleths of the then ascendant Bennite left, scepticism (if not outright hostility) towards the European project became the indispensable accessory for any ambitious Tory. It was the little black dress of right-wing politicians.

For a great number of young Conservatives – not least Cameron – this was only ever a pose adopted out of necessity. But that little black dress turned out to be funeral attire for his leadership and for Britain’s membership of the European Union. The Prime Minister’s great miscalculation – which held until a panicked Downing Street ripped up any hope of a reconciliation after a Remain vote with an impassioned press conference outside No 10, the day before the vote – was that, in the crunch, Britain would opt for the status quo rather than a wrenching change. But Cameron also overestimated his ability to peel back 20 years of newspaper stories about bureaucratic interference from Brussels, of faceless foreign mandarins with opinions on every­thing from the curvature of a banana to whether or not Dairy Milk was chocolate. He failed to account, too, for 12 years of anti-immigration sentiment, fuelled by a combination of a worldwide squeeze in middle incomes and the accession of ten new states to the European Union in 2004.

He misread the situation in part because the outcome of the referendum was decided in sections of the country where political campaigns seldom reach. As one Brexiteer said to me on the night, the Leave argument “won where we always win and where we never compete”. The campaign triumphed in the most forbidding of Conservative fortresses and the safest Labour strongholds.

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The biggest Leave majorities came, as one pro-Remain cabinet minister told me, from “people without skin in the game”: homeowners without mortgages and school-leavers without degrees, who felt that the warnings of potential economic woes applied only to other people.

Our MPs, through the constant pressure of casework, are more attuned to the consequences of recession than is often supposed, yet Westminster remains a place where economic insecurity is an abstract idea rather than the defining experience of their life. For journalists, bad news is good news. As one joked after seeing their website traffic figures, “Let’s have a Brexit every year.”

Yet there are people worrying about their jobs in SW1. Labour MPs with small majorities and Ukip in second place fear an early election. Jeremy Corbyn’s aides fear a successful coup. Staffers working for Conservative ministers fear a triumph for the “wrong” candidate in the Tory party’s fight to pick Cameron’s replacement.

But few are truly worried about the consequences of the Brexit vote, particularly not the flavour of Brexit championed by the official campaign, Vote Leave. The full-fat Brexit option is one that promises an end to the uncontrolled immigration of the single market. That would result in, among other things, the demise of the City of London as a global financial centre, the reappearance of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and less easy holidays on the continent for British tourists.

The consequences of such a change in our relationship with Europe’s other countries have yet to be fully appreciated. The Conservatives are split on free movement, while Yvette Cooper, who is rumoured to have her eyes on a second tilt at the Labour leadership, believes that her party should accept the end of free movement, with all the economic consequences that would have.

Put simply, there is no group in British politics offering a way forward that is both politically deliverable at a European level and not economically ruinous for Britain. That is too horrible to contemplate, let alone discuss with the electorate, so the focus, instead, is on the old internal battles: the left and the right of the Labour Party, the “anyone but Boris” caucus in the Conservative parliamentary party.

The marginalisation of England’s poorest and the obsession with the Westminster game were the forces that powered the vote for Brexit. That triumph has sent the pound plummeting, forced the resignation of the Prime Minister and thrown Labour into crisis. It has emboldened the far right across Europe and has been followed by a series of attacks on Britain’s ethnic minorities. It may yet presage the break-up of the United Kingdom and unravel peace in Northern Ireland. The fruits of ignoring its consequences in favour of the parliamentary game may be bitterer still.

This article appears in the 29 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies